How is My Personal Property Handled in a Trust?

Personal property such as jewelry, antiques, artwork, family heirlooms, and household effects can be passed on to your beneficiaries through a specific bequest: “I leave my Ming Vase to my sister Betty.” But for most people, it would be overwhelming to try to inventory and choose a beneficiary for every last item you own. Instead, it is common to use a separate “Personal Property Memorandum” that is attached to, and incorporated by reference into the trust.

The memo is generally a handwritten or typed list of your wishes of bequests to family or charities, which is signed and dated by you. They can cover each personal item that you own, but typically include only those items of financial value or of strong sentimental value—the types of things that lead to disagreements among the heirs.

The benefit of a memo is that it can be easily changed if you sell something, give it away during life, or change your mind about who should receive it after you’re gone. You simply throw it away and replace it with a new memo.  Each personal property memorandum should be dated, and the trust should contain instructions that if more than one memo is discovered after your death, the one with the most recent date is binding.

Of course, you should also provide for personal property that is not specifically listed on the personal property memorandum. Most trusts will state that the trustee can dispose of it equitably to the beneficiaries, and if they can’t agree on the disposition, the trustee can sell the items and split the proceeds of the sale according to the trust distribution plan.